The afternoon was full of Fall. Oak leaves danced in a cool breeze, their shadows producing a familiar speckled pattern of shadow and sun, shadow and sun.
I was running northeast along the margin of Lasky Mesa in Upper Las VIrgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, enjoying the Fall weather and smoke-free sky. I’d just passed a valley oak along the dirt road, when a thought bubbled up from my subconscious and asked, “Did you see what I saw in that tree?”
I stopped, turned around, and walked the few steps back to the oak tree.
Just feet from the road, partially camouflaged by oak leaves and shadows, was a red-tailed hawk. It seemed surprised, if not indignant, to have been discovered. I was equally astonished to have seen the bird.
The pattern of its plumage now made perfect sense. The hawk had been nearly invisible while feet away and in plain sight. I took one more photo, and then left the bird to its reverie.
Update November 14, 2020. Was near the spot where the encounter described above occurred and photographed a red-tailed hawk with a small rodent it had just killed. Since it’s in the same area, it may be the same bird.
Above are thumbnails of a few photos from a 20-mile out and back trail run to Mugu Peak from the Wendy Drive Trailhead. The run was on October 17, 2020. Click on an image for a larger photo and more information.
There are several ways to get to Mugu Peak from the Wendy Drive Trailhead on Potrero Road. When I do this run I’m usually looking to do a longer, faster-paced run without a huge amount of elevation gain. That translates to running down Big Sycamore Canyon to Wood Ranch Road and then either running up the Backbone Trail or Hell Hill to the “hub,” and from there to La Jolla Valley and Mugu Peak.
The Chumash-Las Llajas Loop is a scenic 9.3 mile trail run in the eastern Simi Valley. Run counterclockwise, it combines a strenuous climb on a single-track trail and fire road with a fast-paced 4-mile downhill on a dirt road. The cumulative elevation gain/loss on the loop is about 1600′.
I like to do the loop starting at the Las Llajas Canyon trailhead on Evening Sky Drive. A short jog up Evening Sky Dr., then across a field, and you’re on your way up the Chumash Trail. From this point, it’s an approximately 1000′ climb over 2.7 miles of rocky trail to Rocky Peak fire road.
After turning left (north) on Rocky Peak fire road, a short downhill is followed by three-quarters of a mile of climbing to “Fossil Point.” A short detour off the main fire road leads to a cairn marking the high point. From here there is a panoramic view of Oat Mountain, San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains, Simi Valley, Boney Mountain, Channel Islands, and Ventura Mountains.
Exposures of fossil shells are found near the high point. According to the area’s Dibblee geology map, these may have been deposited in shallow marine lagoons a couple million years ago.
From the high point, the loop continues north on Rocky Peak Road. At first, it descends steeply, then climbs to a hilltop with a few valley oaks. Partway up the hill, a roadcut reveals the long roots of the chamise plants on the hillside.
Some of the wildlife, and not-so-wild animals, I’ve encountered on the loop include rattlesnakes and other snakes, deer, longhorn cattle, roadrunners, and a kangaroo rat. Although others have seen mountain lions in the area, I’ve only photographed their tracks.
The loop ends with a short, steep climb up a paved road. At the top of the hill, turn left to return to the trailhead.
The Bulldog Loop, without any extras, is a little over 14 miles long, with an elevation gain of about 2700′.
While doing the Phantom Loop last week, I was reminded that a good way to extend the Bulldog Loop is to combine it with the Phantom Loop. This produces a run of about 19 miles, with an elevation gain of around 3650′.
This weekend I was looking to do something a little longer. With the National Forests in Southern California still closed, the usual high country options weren’t available. The temperature forecast looked warm, but not crazy hot, so it was a good day to do this run.
The Cistern/Phantom Trailhead on Mulholland Highway is a convenient place to start and end the loop. Later in the run, water is usually available from a faucet and fountains adjacent to the restrooms at the main MCSP parking lot. If doing the loop counterclockwise from the Cistern Trailhead, the restrooms and water are about 14 miles into the run.
The main attraction is still the Bulldog climb. From Crags Road to Castro Mtwy, the Bulldog Mtwy gains about 1730′ over about 3.4 miles. From the MCSP parking lot to the high point on the Phantom Trail, the route gains a bit more than 1000′ over 4.7 miles.
It was a chilly 45°F as I crossed algae-covered Malibu Creek on a foot-worn log. Following a brutally hot Summer with temps in the West San Fernando Valley reaching 121°F, the chill of the cold air felt especially good.
The plan was to do the Phantom Loop, but first, I was going to run over to the Forest Trail. The side trip was not only to check on the coast redwoods along the trail but to enjoy the calm beauty of the area. To say 2020 has been unsettling is like saying a rattlesnake bite is a little annoying — and the year isn’t over yet.
Continuing along the Forest Trail toward Century Lake, I counted four healthy-appearing redwoods and two struggling trees. Redwoods sometimes grow in a group of two or mote trees, and these were counted as a single “tree.” Near the end of the trail is a naturally-germinated redwood that has grown to about 5.5 inches in diameter. Remarkably, this young tree survived the 2011-2015 drought and the 2018 Woolsey Fire, and appears healthy!
I had just finished photographing the young tree when a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk flew from a nearby oak and through the trees along the trail. It landed on the limb of an oak ahead of me but was in deep shade. In a much-enlarged image, the bird looks like a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but distinguishing the two species can be challenging.
A few yards down the trail, a much larger raptor — a Red-tailed hawk — was perched at the top of the tallest redwood. The huge bird had its wings pulled back to expose more of its body to the warming sun. It looked like a giant penguin sitting atop a tree. As I approached, it began to preen its feathers, comfortable with its lofty position.
With a sigh, I left the Forest Trail behind and returned to Malibu Creek. This time I crossed the creek on a plank near the washed-out bridge. This was a more direct route than the fallen tree upstream but only worked because the creek was low. At the crossing, a passing runner asked if he was on the Bulldog Loop. I assured him he was and was a little envious that he was getting to experience that excellent run for the first time.
In a few minutes, I’d reached Mulholland Highway and then followed the Grasslands Trail to the Liberty Canyon Trail. From Liberty Canyon, the Phantom Trail gains about 750′ in elevation over about 1.5 miles to a high point and ridgeline with excellent views of Saddleback Peak, Las Virgenes Canyon, Brents Mountain, Goat Buttes, Castro Peak, Ladyface, and Boney Mountain.
The air quality this morning hadn’t been too bad. From up on the ridge, I could see there was far less smoke to the west of Las Virgenes Canyon than to the east. Yesterday, I’d done a run in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains and had to cut the run short because of smoke. That wasn’t a problem today, and the run had been a good one.